As September winds down, so goes National Menopause Awareness Month. Alas! If only the torturous menopausal symptoms would follow suit. But with no such luck on the horizon, we’re left to soldier on, “scratchin’ and survivin’ (good times), hangin’ in and jivin’ (good times),” to get the support and relief we so desperately crave.
Last week I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece about dealing with menopausal rage at work. But for the millions of perimenopausal women who are actively working and may be dealing with severe mood swings, it’s not an issue to be taken lightly. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018 there were more than 15 million women between 44 and 55 years old who were actively working. And with more than 33 million women over the age of 45, 20% of the American workforce has experienced, is experiencing, or will experience symptoms related to menopause. Even so, in the US, there are no workplace policies or programs that are designed specifically to support women living -- and working -- with menopause.
With such a significant segment of the labor force subject to this involuntary, biological, life-affecting issue, I think it’s time that menopause be addressed as a workplace inclusion issue that’s factored into comprehensive Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategies. In the era of “bring your whole self to work,” what does that mean for those of us who earnestly struggle with managing our hormonal (i.e., emotional) responses at work month-to-month, if not day-to-day? Particularly, when we know this version of ourselves is not an appropriate one to bring to work. Yet and still, it’s a very real and troublesome experience that’s stigmatized and treated as an unmentionable topic to which illustrative code is ascribed…e.g., “Woman of a Certain Age” or “Her own private summer”.
More often, it’s just altogether unaddressed, with women working with perimenopause, too often labeled as “intense” or “difficult” or “scary”. Well, maybe, but please know that we’re wrestling with an eruption of hormones, while working on a dangerously low reserve of civility (and sleep) and would surely fix it if we could.
How Perimenopause Can Affect Work
While many women of perimenopausal age may experience few, if any issues, there are a range of disruptive symptoms that plague many of us and that have and can be particularly challenging and stressful to manage at work:
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder or PMDD is a more extreme case of PMS. PMDD usually starts a few days before your period starts and ends after the first few days of your period. The intense symptoms associated with PMDD can be disruptive and affect your relationships and daily activities, like work and other social interactions. While PMDD can be managed through lifestyle changes, it’s often treated as a medical condition for which medication is prescribed.
Hot Flashes or vasomotor symptoms are sudden sensations of heat and sweating that can overcome you and produce extreme discomfort (not to mention embarrassment). They are sometimes accompanied by an increased heart rate or followed by chills. Some women also experience redness in their face, chest and neck. Hot flashes that occur when you sleep are called night sweats. Night sweats can disrupt your sleep and make it difficult to get the rest you need. For many women struggling with hot flashes and night sweats, these symptoms can last for seven to 11 years.
Insomnia or trouble sleeping is common for menopausal women. Approximately 61% of menopausal women have sleep problems. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep can be impacted by many things, including hormonal and lifestyle changes. Of course, not getting enough sleep can lead to other problems, such as sluggishness and lack of energy during waking hours.
Brain Fog is a term used to describe a range of cognitive issues associated with menopause, including forgetfulness and difficulty staying focused. These symptoms are often related to “menopausal fatigue,” which can be associated with several factors, including fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels. These hormonal fluctuations are the primary cause of most menopause symptoms, which research has also linked to problems with memory and cognitive decline.
Of course, occasionally experiencing any one of these things might make for a bad day at work. However, when compounded over months, if not years, the mood swings, night sweats, sleep disruptions, hot flashes and forgetfulness can leave you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and diminish your overall confidence and productivity at work.
How Employers Can Support a Menopausal Workforce
It would benefit employers to develop inclusive policies and provide supportive environments for women among their workforce that are dealing with these issues. The notion that employers play a role is not so far-fetched or without precedent. Just last week, in the UK it was announced that the Labour party would introduce a policy at its annual conference that would require companies employing more than 250 people to offer menopause supportive policies, like flexible work and break schedules, climate flexibility, and rescheduling of critical meetings or project deadlines.
In addition to this type of progressive thinking around policy solutions, there are several UK-based coaches and trainers offering workshops focused on expanding menopause awareness and education in the workplace:
The Hot Flush Club offers workplace programs through its HFC Training arm, which helps “address the complex issues around diversity, unconscious bias and menopause awareness in the workplace with professionalism and sensitivity.”
Menopause trainer and coach, Julie Dennis, offers Menopause at Work Training Solutions which are tailored to a company’s unique culture to ensure meaningful engagement and likelihood for success. Her “Menopause at Work” model is rooted in fostering awareness, education and support and is delivered through workshops, surveys and other information and resources.
Kelly Leech is a women’s health and menopause coach, who also works with employers to be more menopause-sensitive and aware. Through her Menopause for Business service, she offers workshops for female employees, as well as HR professionals and managers.
Changing Your Workplace
While we may seem light years away from implementing sound and supportive menopause-related workplace policies here in the U.S., stranger things have happened (and you can’t achieve a goal if you never set one). That said, if you’re looking for practical ways to make your current experience a little bit better, it really does start with conversation and awareness.
Seek out other women in your age cohort at work, and gently inquire if they’re experiencing challenges related to perimenopause. If this feels too invasive, then look for the context clues (e.g., sweating, fatigue, “train of thought” derailments, etc.) before asking the question, because they’re likely there. Connecting with other women dealing with the same or similar issues can reduce your feelings of isolation (i.e., I’m the only one) and provide a supportive and psychologically safe zone at work.
If you’re fortunate to enjoy a more progressive and inclusive workplace culture, there are a few things you can suggest your employer consider to demonstrate that they’re supportive of their affected workforce. A few include, but are not limited to:
Workplace Support and Resource Groups
Mental Health Days/Telework Options
So, while September winds down, we can either think of National Menopause Awareness Month as the end of a campaign, or the kick-off of an actionable agenda for the year ahead. Whether it’s starting a conversation, educating yourself, growing awareness by sharing information or driving for meaningful workplace policies, you can make a difference – and you can’t achieve a goal if you don’t set one!